Poet Ross Gay finds delight even in difficult times

Published 6:56 am Saturday, March 9, 2019

By Euan Kerr

MPR News/90.1 FM

Let’s face it: The snowy weather has made life a slog recently. Poet Ross Gay argues that in times like these when you come across something that lifts your heart a little, it’s extra sweet.

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He should know. He spent a year writing an essay every day about something that delighted him. More than 100 of them ended up in “The Book of Delights.”

Gay said he noticed after he finished all those essays on delightful topics, something pretty major was missing.

“I was like, ‘Wait a second, I really didn’t define this word,’” he said. The word was “delight” and even after writing about it daily for a year, even now, he uses an imprecise definition.

“It feels to me that it often involves an element of surprise or an element of ‘I didn’t know that,’ or ‘I didn’t know that I knew that,’ or ‘I forgot that’” he said. “Or something [that is] sweet and reminds us of the good. It’s a category of joy.”

The book contains essays on things he saw in his garden and interactions with people he meets. There’s even one about how people leave their possessions untended on Amtrak trains in a way Gay believes may not happen elsewhere. And sometimes it’s just the unexpected, like in the essay “Bird Feeding.”

“How often do you get to see someone slow-dancing with a pigeon!” it reads. “And not 30 seconds later, walking toward Eighth, giggling at my good fortune, a tufted titmouse swooped by my head, landing on a wrought-iron gate, upon which a pedestrian walking past me immediately pulled from her snazzy jacket pocket a baggie of crumbs and the bird hopped directly into her hand, nuzzling the goodies intermittent with tweeting towards its new pal, the bird and woman both nodding at me gawking at them, smiling at my bafflement as though to say ‘We are everywhere.’”

But “The Book of Delights” is not pollyannaish or saccharine. As the reader follows him through his year, he reveals details of his life as a biracial man in America.

“The labor of attending to my delight is evident,” he said. “Like I am working hard to focus on this task I have set myself which is to notice something delightful in my life that day — and it is clear when there are times that it is not easy.”

Each essay in “The Book of Delights” has its own focus, but he says there is an underlying theme.

“As a whole, I hope that this book is a kind of sustained meditation on — not only the potential but the fact of our persistent caretaking of one another,” he said. “Like we are constantly in the presence of caretaking and tenderness.”

For Gay, who lives in Philadelphia, Minnesota looms large. His mother grew up in Verndale, Minn., near Brainerd. When he was a boy, his family vacationed there for a month every summer at his grandparents. Verndale comes up a couple of times in the book.

“That little town, Verndale, Minn., is deeply in my whole sort of, the way I think of things, you know. Yeah, that’s deep, deep in me, “ he said.

When asked what he learned through his year-long exploration of delight, Gay said the value of writing every day for one thing. The other is that experiencing delight takes effort and grows with repetition.

“Attending to your delight is a muscle,” he said. “It doesn’t diminish the fact of our sorrows or anything like that. What it does is it makes the fact of our joy, of our delight, of our interdependence, more part of the field of our vision, the field of our experience.”

By flexing this muscle, Gay says, we may find our lives are full of delight.

Ross Gay will return to the Twin Cities in May to appear at the inaugural Wordplay Festival.